Music is like a language all its own—and that language comes with its own special dictionary! Even the specific genre of movie music has generated unique terminology for the ways film scores pull audiences into the drama on-screen. When you add these terms to your music vocabulary, you’ll head to Sarasota Orchestra’s Hollywood Hits concert a newly-minted film music buff.
Leitmotif – When a composer creates a phrase or entire theme to represent a particular character, place, or even an idea, they’re developing a leitmotif. A leitmotif will reappear throughout a film score at pivotal moments to deepen the audience’s connection to what’s happening on-screen.
In the epic film Ben-Hur, composer Miklós Rózsa masterfully employed leitmotif to signify not just the characters, but the relationships between them. Rózsa was able to musically encapsulate the way these relationships deepen, sour, and shift over the course of the film. For example, his leitmotif for Judah Ben-Hur and Esther captures both their love at first sight and abiding romance when the pair reunite after years of Ben-Hur’s enslavement. Rózsa’s score for Ben-Hur paved the way for another master of leitmotif in movie music and a household name for the genre: John Williams. His themes for the heroes and villains of the Indiana Jones and Star Wars franchises rocketed film music’s popularity into the stratosphere.
Diegetic music – Diegetic music stems directly from a film’s characters or other elements engaged in the film’s narrative—that is to say, the action is the source of the music, hence its alternate term, “source music.” If you can see who (or what) is making the music, you know it’s diegetic.
On the flipside of the terminological coin, we have non-diegetic music: the film score an audience can hear—but the characters on-screen can’t. Film music educator Mark Richards encourages people to think about the difference between diegetic and non-diegetic music this way:
“Diegetic music is usually used to clarify time and place, social circle, or nationality,” he says in his analysis, whereas non-diegetic music “typically reflects the psychological state of the characters onscreen, or suggests how we ought to emotionally interpret the images we see.” The fire escape scene in Breakfast at Tiffany’s, where Audrey Hepburn strums a guitar and sings “Moon River” in unpolished yet alluring tones, is a particularly effective example of diegetic music that tugs on the heartstrings like the finest examples of non-diegetic music out there.
Theme score – Theme scores stand out from the catalog of film music by deriving the majority, if not all, of their material from a single song. Theme scores rose to popularity during the ‘60s, when movie-makers sought to appeal to younger crowds who were glued to their radios and record players when they weren’t flocking to pop concerts and dance clubs. A hit song could just make a hit movie.
No film franchise has produced more chart-toppers than James Bond, whose theme songs have won Oscars, Grammys, and a Golden Globes (plus 30 nominations across all three prizes). Composer John Barry scored 12 of Eon Productions’ 24 Bond flicks. While his work frequently figures each movie’s theme throughout its music, Barry’s score for Goldfinger is the best example of a true theme score as the title song’s strident opening chords and melody leap into action throughout the film.
Mickey Mousing – In Mickey Mouse’s 1928 film debut, Steamboat Willie, the underlying music syncs up exactly with each giggle-inducing gag and pratfall. Thus Mickey lent his name to this practice of using film scores not just to punctuate, but closely imitate the action. “Mickey Mousing” has largely fallen out of favor due to being considered a bit cheesy (no pun intended). One of the last film composers to use the technique to great effect was Max Steiner, whose credits include the scores for Gone With the Wind, King Kong, and Casablanca.
You can even see a bit of Mickey Mousing in Mancini’s theme for The Pink Panther (yep, he wrote that one, too). In his autobiography, Did They Mention the Music?, Mancini reveals that’s exactly what he was going for:
“I told [the animators] that I would give them a tempo they could animate to, so that any time there were striking motions, someone getting hit, I could score to it.
[The animators] finished the sequence and I looked at it. All the accents in the music were timed to actions on the screen.”